There are many stories as to how Ganesha got his elephant head. This is the one I’m familiar with...
While Shiva was away, Parvathi instructed Nandi, Shiva’s bull, to guard the entrance to her quarters while she bathed, telling him no one was to be allowed in. But when Shiva returned, Nandi stepped aside, for his loyalty was, first and foremost, to Shiva. Angry at the slight, and that she had no one who was as loyal to her, Parvathi created Ganesha when Shiva was, again, away. He returned while she was bathing and was displeased to find his way blocked by a young boy, a stranger to him. In his anger, he cut off the boy’s head. Then had to face the wrath of his wife. To appease her, he restored Ganesha to life, and provided him with the head of the first creature he came across, an elephant.
All Hindus, no matter who their favourite deity is, always pray to Ganesha first as he is known as ‘the remover of obstacles’. Any temple you visit, whether it’s dedicated to Shiva, or Murugan, or the goddess in any of her forms, there will always be a small shrine in front of the main temple for Ganesha.
Like all Hindu deities, Ganesha has a multitude of names; the more popular ones include Ganapati (‘lord of the ganas’ who are, interestingly, followers of Shiva), Vighneshvara (‘lord of obstacles’), Pillaiyar (‘noble child’) and Ekadanta (‘one who has one tusk’).
Ganesha’s form is rich in symbolism – his right hand is raised in blessing; the left holds a bowl of sweets, signifying rewards for self-discipline; in his upper right hand he holds an axe to cut off the bonds of attachment; and his upper left hand bears a lotus flower, and also a rope to pull you closer to attaining fulfilment. He only has one tusk as he broke the other off to write the Sanskrit epic, the ‘Mahabharatha’. His large stomach signifies the ability to digest both, the good and the bad, in life. There is always a rat at Ganesha’s feet, representing worldly desires that need to be overcome. Ganesha also uses the rat as his vehicle, demonstrating the unity and harmony that he symbolises through his acceptance of a creature considered as vermin.
Ganesha’s younger brother, Murugan, as he is known in Tamil Nadu, also has many names; these include Shanmuga (‘the lord with six faces’), Karthikeya (‘one who gives courage and happiness’), Kumara (‘prince’ or ‘child’) and Swaminatha (‘smart’ or ‘clever’). He was born to end the tyranny of the demon, Taraka, who had earned his invulnerability through his unconditional worship of Brahma; according to Brahma the only one who could defeat Taraka would be a son of Shiva.
Murugan is a popular deity among Tamils, and is worshipped primarily by South Indians. For them, the main festival for Murugan is ‘Thaipusam’, celebrated on the full moon in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ (Jan/Feb); ‘pusam’ refers to a star that is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvathi gave Murugan a ‘vel’ (spear) – the embodiment of her ‘shakti’ (power) – so he could vanquish the evil demon, Soorapadman. When Murugan used the ‘vel’ to defeat the demon’s evil forces, Soorapadman, in an effort to save himself, turned into a mango tree. But Murugan saw through the deception and hurled his ‘vel’ at the tree, splitting it in two. Filled with remorse and wishing to repent, Soorapadman asked Murugan to allow him to serve the god; Murugan then turned one half of the tree into a peacock, which became his vehicle; and the other into a rooster, the emblem on his battle flag.
Taken in the Murugan temple at Batu Caves, Malaysia (apologies for poor quality)
The ‘vel’ is quite meaningful to Tamils as it is seen as the embodiment of spiritual insight. The ‘shakti’ of the ‘vel’ signifies the power of righteousness over evil, representing our release from ignorance into knowledge.
Even though Krishna is my favourite deity, Ganesha has a special place in my heart … I feel as if, no matter what I do, he’ll never be angry, only ever understanding.